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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

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Local Theater History: Herbert R. Boshoven Interview

by Fr. Dennis Morrow

Herbert R. Boshoven, born in 1916, was the son of Herbert Boshoven, Sr., who died in 1940, and had been the founder and operator of several neighborhood movie theaters in Grand Rapids. The following notes are from the interview conducted by Fr. Dennis W. Morrow in the early 1990’s.

Herbert Boshoven, Sr., opened and ran a saloon across from American Laundry on South Division from 1898 to 1918. Grovenor L. Willer and Mr. Beecher were building the Franklin Theater in 1914. Boshoven started to dig a hole with a team of horses on the east side of Division Avenue as though he were building a theater. When Willer and Beecher saw this, they took him in as a partner. They went on to build the Liberty (1916) and Madison (1923) Theaters in the south end of Grand Rapids. In 1928 he built the Our Theater on Leonard Street. It featured carpeting, aisle lights, a domed ceiling, and upholstered seats, along with 6 offices and 2 stores, with a basement. Beecher invented the game of Flinch.            

Herbert Boshoven, Sr., rented the Alcazar, Burton, and Biltmore Theaters. The Biltmore occupied the spot where the Cherie Inn, near Cherry and Diamond, now stands.              

Robinson had the Fulton Theater. Later he bought the Burton, which his son-in-law ran.

In the 1930’s, bombs went off at the Liberty and Franklin Theaters.  (N.B.:  This would have been when the Purple Gang from Detroit was trying to make inroads into the Grand Rapids Italian community.)

Herb, Sr.’s, first partner was Grovenor L. Willer. Fleser and Callahan bought several theaters from Boshoven and Willer about 1935; but they were alcoholics, and the theaters came back to Boshoven after months in court.

 Poisson had a storefront theater on Leonard across from the Royal.  He gave it to his son-in-law, Allen Johnson, to run; but Johnson couldn’t make a go of it and Poisson threw him out. Then Johnson owned the Royal Theater. When Boshoven built the Our Theater, it practically put the Royal out of business. Johnson went into partnership with Butterfield.  Butterfield had the Center and the Kent Theaters, along with 125 others around the state.             

Another of Poisson’s daughters married Oscar Varneau. Varneau was a friend of Walter Norris, the lead manager for Butterfield’s Grand Rapids theaters. These included the Family, the Vogue, the Southlawn, and the Galewood. Walt Norris and Herb Boshoven were the first general chairmen of Youth Day, which came out of the Variety Club. The rules were that 50% or more of the income had to be from the show. Walter Norris and Frank Cleaver had the Uptown Theater. Norris’ daughter is married to Mr. Cannon, athletic director for Michigan State University.

Howard Reynolds was another son-in-law of Poisson. He had the Vogue, Family, and Stocking Theaters.

Himelstein had the Creston and Roxy Theaters.  His brother owned the State and the Superba.              

The Franklin and the Liberty Theaters both lost 17’ at the entrance of the buildings when Division Avenue was widened in 1928. The Franklin added the 17’ onto the rear. The Liberty seated 614, and had the second longest projection (110’) in town, after the Regent.  The Division Avenue widening greatly reduced the size of the Liberty’s very ample lobby.  The sale of popcorn made a 72% profit. Popcorn income was always half of the box office receipts. There was no room at the Franklin to make popcorn, so it was made in the machine at the Liberty and carted down the street to the Franklin in a wheelbarrow. Carl Ditta, Charlie Lima, Mazzarelli, Scalabrino, and Spica all worked for Herb, Jr., at these theaters.    

Herb, Sr., later took on Joe Busic from Detroit as a partner. Busic returned to Detroit, and was shot and killed by robbers as he was counting the previous night’s receipts.

Rymer did the well-drilling for all the theaters for air conditioning in the mid-1930’s. They were 8” wells drilled 300’ deep. 75-horsepower motors turned impellers that drew water up from the same source that feeds Lake Superior. The water was always 52°. Curiously, at the Madison Theater the well was only 30’ deep, and the water was 51°. It was difficult to regulate the temperature, which was why so many people brought sweaters and jackets to the theaters even on the hottest summer days. Wurzburg’s put two 12” wells in to cool their Monroe Avenue department store about 1935. When the motors were turned on, it took the water level in the well at the Liberty Theater down 20’!              

C. Thomas built the Four Star and Eastown Theaters. He had a chain of stores, which he sold to Kroger for $4 million. That’s how Kroger got into Grand Rapids.

A motion picture salesman built the Grand Theater in Grandville, but it only lasted a few years.

For 10¢, the neighborhood theater provided the cheapest babysitting service in town. The neighborhood theaters never recovered from the summer slump of 1949, when television began to take over.

At the end of 1998, the arrival of Cinemark USA was to end a trend. Up to that point, movie-going in West Michigan had been largely a local show. The three theater chains based in or tied to the area have done the nearly impossible in today’s world: they have succeeded in overpowering the national chains. Jack Loeks Theatres, Star Theatres, and Goodrich Quality Theaters have driven nearly all the national chains from West Michigan.  (Jim Weiker, “Number of Movie Screens in Area About to Double,” GRP Sun. 12/20/1998 F1.)

Garrison Wells, “Screen Squeeze,” GRP Sun. 10/22/2000 B1 & 10.

Personalities in Grand Rapids Movie Theater History

Himelstein, Harry C.  Wife Eleanor.  Harry and Eleanor together ran the Creston Theater from at least 1940 to at least 1966.  He had also operated the State Theater.  He lived a 400 Marywood N.E.  Harry died on May 3, 1982, and was buried by the Alt Mortuary at Greenwood Cemetery.  He and Samuel Himelstein were brothers.  Their mother was Anna, and she owned the large tenement at 415 Bridge N.W.

Himelstein, Samuel H.  An attorney by profession, Samuel owned the Rialto Theater building, operating the Art Theater there in the 1950’s.  He died on Monday, December 9, 1968, and was buried by the Alt Mortuary at Greenwood Cemetery.

Otterbacher, John.  Wife Dena D. (03/29/1907-12/30/2003).


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